Korean Proverbs

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There are proverbs that are famous in every country, but don’t tend to be translated across languages very well. Elders and ancestors created proverbs for us to learn from their mistakes! Here are some of the most common proverbs in Korea, in of course Korean, with the literal meaning (which is sometimes hilarious!) and the real meaning!

호랑이도 제 말 하면 온다

Pronunciation: holang-ido je mal hamyeon onda

Literal meaning: When we talk about a tiger, the tiger can turn up.

Real meaning: You’d better not gossip about someone when they are not there as they might turn up!

간이 콩알만해지다

Pronunciation gan-i kong-almanhaejida

Literal meaning: Your liver can become as small as a bean.

Real meaning: You are really scared or frightened.

갈수록 태산

Pronunciation galsulog taesan

Literal meaning: As you go there are higher and bigger mountains.

Real meaning: The more you have difficulties in life, the more hardships will come.

값싼 것이 비지떡

Pronunciation: gabs-ssan geos-i bijitteog

Literal meaning: Something cheap is meant to be worthless.

Real meaning: Whatever it is, if it is cheap, it has bad quality.

낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다

Pronunciation: najmal-eun saega deudgo bammal-eun jwiga deudneunda:

Literal meaning: Words in the daytime are heard by birds, but words in the night time are heard by mice.

Real meaning: Even though you are whispering secretly , words are always leaked somewhere. So we need to be careful whenever we speak.

내 코가 석 자

Pronunciation: nae koga seog ja

Literal meaning: My snot is about thirty centimeters.

Real meaning: You need to take care of yourself instead of taking care of others.

누워서 침 뱉기

Pronunciation: nuwoseo chim baetgi

Literal meaning: Spit out lying down.

Real meaning: When you try to harm or insult someone, you hurt yourself instead.

달면 삼키고 쓰면 뱉는다

Pronunciation: dalmyeon samkigo sseumyeon baetneunda .

Literal meaning: If sweet, you swallow, and if bitter, you spit it out.

Real meaning: You throw something away when it is necessary, but you use it if its beneficial.

가는 말이 고와야 오는 말이 곱다

Pronunciation: ganeun mal-i gowaya oneun mal-i gobda

Literal meaning: Good words brings back kind words.

Real meaning: If you are kind to people, then people will be nice to you.

가재는 게 편이라

Pronunciation: gajaeneun ge pyeon-ila

Literal meaning: The crayfish takes the crab’s side.

Real meaning: People who are similar in temperament, financial state or in the same situation, are on the same team and pull punches together.

간에 기별도 안 간다

Pronunciation: gan-e gibyeoldo an ganda

Literal meaning: Your liver can’t feel anything.

Real meaning: You didn’t eat enough to feel full

닭 잡아 먹고 오리발 내민다

Pronunciation: dalg jab-a meoggo olibal naeminda

Literal meaning: After you prey on chickens, you play innocent.

Real meaning: When you try to hide what you did wrong.

도둑이 제 발 저리다

Pronunciation: dodug-i je bal jeolida

Literal meaning: A robber has pins and needles in his foot.

Real meaning: When you cause a problem, you think that everyone is talking about it.

되로 주고 말로 받는다

Pronunciation: doelo jugo mallo badneunda         

Literal meaning: To sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.

Real meaning: To get paid back far more after only giving a little..

마른 하늘에 날벼락

Pronunciation: maleun haneul-e nalbyeolag

Literal meaning: Lightening on a clear sky, out of the blue.

Real meaning: The unexpected always happens.

말 한마디에 천 냥 빚도 갚는다

Pronunciation: mal hanmadie cheon nyang bijdo gapneunda

Literal meaning: If you speak well, you can pay back huge debts.

Real meaning: This indicates the importance of words.

고기는 씹어야 맛이요, 말은 해야 맛이라

Pronunciation: gogineun ssib-eoya mas-iyo, mal-eun haeya mas-ila

Literal meaning: Meat is tasty to chew, and words are tasty to speak.

Real meaning: You need to speak out what you want to say, not to hold it back in your mind.

고래 싸움에 새우 등 터진다

Pronunciation: golae ssaum-e saeu deung teojinda

Literal meaning: A shrimp gets hurt on its back while wales are fighting.

Real meaning: An innocent bystander gets hurt in a fight.

고양이 목에 방울 달기

Pronunciation: goyang-i mog-e bang-ul dalgi

Literal meaning: To tie a bell on the neck of a cat.

Real meaning: To attempt something unattainable or dangerous.

그림의 떡

Pronunciation: geulim-ui tteog

Literal meaning: Pie in the painting

Real meaning: Refers to untouchable things or something you can’t have.

바늘 도둑이 소 도둑 된다

Pronunciation: baneul dodug-i so dodug doenda

Literal meaning: A person who steals needle will become a thief for cows

Real meaning: If you do small bad things, you might commit a great sin sometime in the future.

벼룩의 간 빼먹기

Pronunciation: byeolug-ui gan ppaemeoggi

Literal meaning: To pick out the liver of a plea and eat it.

Real meaning: To exploit unfair means for small benefits.

병 주고 약 준다

Pronunciation: byeong jugo yag junda

Literal meaning: To give illness and medicine.

Real meaning: To pretend to help but actually interrupt.

보기 좋은 떡이 먹기도 좋다

Pronunciation: bogi joh-eun tteog-i meoggido johda

Literal meaning: A good looking Korean rice cake is more edible.

Real meaning: You need to decorate your outside appearance just as much as the inside.

새발의 피

Pronunciation: saebal-ui pi

Literal meaning: A drop of blood from a bird’s foot.

Real meaning: Practically nothing.

세 살 버릇 여든까지 간다

Pronunciation: se sal beoleus yeodeunkkaji ganda

Literal meaning: Habits you have at three, are carried to your eighties.

Real meaning: You need good habits rather than bad ones starting from childhood.

수박 겉 핥기

Pronunciation: subag geot haltgi

Literal meaning: To lick the surface of a watermelon

Real meaning: Skin-deep, shallowness and superficiality.

식은 죽 먹기

Pronunciation: sig-eun jug meoggi

Literal meaning: To eat cold rice porridge.

Real meaning: A piece of cake.

꿩 대신 닭

Pronunciation: kkwong daesin dalg

Literal meaning: A pheasant instead of a chicken.

Real meaning: If you can’t find what you want to use, you can replace it with something similar.

밑 빠진 독에 물 붓기

Pronunciation: mit ppajin dog-e mul busgi

Literal meaning: Pouring water inside a broken jar.

Real meaning: Even if you put a lot of effort into something, it came out to nothing.

열 번 찍어 아니 넘어가는 나무 없다

Pronunciation: yeol beon jjig-eo ani neom-eoganeun namu eobsda

Literal meaning: All trees fall down with ten strokes.

Real meaning: If someone is stubborn or strong willed, you can convince them if you try really hard.

오르지 못할 나무는 쳐다보지도 말아라

Pronunciation: oleuji moshal namuneun chyeodabojido mal-ala

Literal meaning: Don’t even take a look, if you can’t climb up the tree.

Real meaning: If you can’t make it, you’d better not wish for it.

울며 겨자 먹기

Pronunciation: ulmyeo gyeoja meoggi

Literal meaning: To have mustard crying.

Real meaning: You can’t avoid what you don’t want to do by pretending to like doing it.

원숭이도 나무에서 떨어진다

Pronunciation: wonsung-ido namueseo tteol-eojinda

Literal meaning: Even monkeys fall down from trees.

Real meaning: Skilled people makes mistakes too.

개구리 올챙이 적 생각을 못한다

Pronunciation: gaeguli olchaeng-i jeog saeng-gag-eul moshanda

Literal meaning: Frogs forget when they were tadpoles.

Real meaning: A person with a higher position can’t remember when he was poor.

개천에서 용 난다

Pronunciation: gaecheon-eseo yong nanda

Literal meaning: A dragon started from a stream.

Real meaning: This is used when a great man comes from a poor family.

꿩 먹고 알 먹기

Pronunciation: kkwong meoggo al meoggi

Literal meaning: To take a peasant and its egg.

Real meaning: Doing one task, can give you two benefits

자랄 나무는 떡잎부터 알아본다

Pronunciation: jalal namuneun tteog-ipbuteo al-abonda

Literal meaning: Trees that will grow big are noticeable from the cotyledon (seed leaf).

Real meaning: Someone who is going to be big shows potential when they are young.

작은 고추가 더 맵다

Pronunciation: jag-eun gochuga deo maebda

Literal meaning: The smaller pepper, the spicier.

Real meaning: People who look ordinary work better.

지렁이도 밟으면 꿈틀한다

Pronunciation: jileong-ido balb-eumyeon kkumteulhanda

Literal meaning: If an earthworm is stepped on, it still moves.

Real meaning: Even worthless people will be angry if they are treated badly.

칼로 물 베기

Pronunciation: kallo mul begi

Literal meaning: To cut water with a knife.

Real meaning: Lovers’ quarrels are soon mended.

티끌 모아 태산

Pronunciation: tikkeul moa taesan

Literal meaning: When a little dust gathers, it becomes huge!

Real meaning: Every little helps.

하늘의 별 따기

Pronunciation: haneul-ui byeol ttagi

Literal meaning: To pick stars from the sky.

Real meaning: It’s like asking for the moon, almost impossible!

한 귀로 듣고 한 귀로 흘린다

Pronunciation: han gwilo deudgo han gwilo heullinda

Literal meaning: In one ear and out the other.

Real meaning: Obviously… when people don’t listen!

What’s your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!

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Jamie has spent the last 3 years in and out of Asia, including living in South Korea for 2 years. He plans to turn his travel knowledge and entrepreneurial spirit into something that can benefit the community. He enjoys turning his wacky ideas into realistic concepts, improving his photography skills and looking at which rocks will fit his fish tank best. At the age of 24, he is the co founder of Teaching Travel.

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